ROME -- Salvatore Vacca came home from Bosnia-Herzegovina a gray, sweating shadow of the amiable soldier his mother knew. He had shed 30 pounds. His heart raced. The skin between his fingers and toes was wet and raw.
That was in April 1999. By September, the corporal in the elite Sassari Brigader was dead of leukemia at 23. "We never had an explanation," says his mother, Pepina, a homemaker in Sardinia. "We never received any calls from the army or the government."
Now she has her suspicions, as do the families of six other Italians who died of cancers after serving in the former Yugoslavia. For the last two weeks Italian newspapers have been calling it "The Balkans Syndrome," an echo of the "Gulf War Syndrome," the mysterious set of ills afflicting some U.S. veterans of that conflict.
In Italy, newspapers are pointing fingers at depleted uranium, the tank-busting heavy metal that U.S. A-10 "Warthog" jets fired more than 40,000 times in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. A U.S. researcher says otherwise.
With one Portuguese and two Dutch veterans of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia also dead, and four French and five Belgian soldiers diagnosed with cancer, the European Union said last week it will begin an inquiry. At least five countries are testing soldiers, and Italy has asked NATO to stop using depleted uranium munitions.
NATO and U.S. officials say no serious study has ever linked the radioactive material to cancer, though they invite more research. Since 1993, Melissa McDiarmid has cared for 63 Gulf war vets exposed to depleted uranium, including 15 soldiers still imbedded with uranium fragments. Not one has cancer.
"I would say these cancers and leukemias in these folks are likely from something else," said McDiarmid, a medicine professor at the University of Maryland, whose research is being conducted for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Baltimore.
The Italian press has not mentioned her work, and each day trumpets new cases. As many as 15 other soldiers are reported to be suffering from cancer. With parliamentary elections around the corner, many politicians and veterans groups have blasted NATO, the United States and their own government for failing to protect soldiers.
"When you deal with radiation, people get paranoid," said NATO spokesman Francois Le Blevennec, who noted that the ammunition has never been declared illegal by any war convention or proved to be carcinogenic. To ease Italian concerns, NATO will pull records of every sortie flown with depleted uranium munitions. NATO has acknowledged that the fighter jets fired 31,000 rounds in Kosovo during the 1999 war and 10,800 rounds in Bosnia-Herzegovina during 1994 and 1995, principally at Serbian tank positions around Sarajevo. …